NASHVILLE – Seventeen years ago, an assistant equipment manager named Stan Wilson walked into the Winnipeg Jets dressing room and handed a new player his jersey. The number was 21. The name on the back was Doan. Neither the rookie nor the equipment guy thought much of the moment. The odds were against them sharing much more than casual conversations from that point on. After all, how many pro athletes really know the equipment manager?
That rookie is now deep into his 30s. That equipment manager is now deep into his 40s. They have been joined at the hip all this time, and they are now the best of friends. And for the first time in a mostly depressing odyssey that took them from the frigidness of Winnipeg to the roasting heat of Arizona, Stan Wilson and Shane Doan are one win away from a shot at the Stanley Cup final.
You might think Wilson is just a head equipment manager. Don’t you dare say that to Doan. “He’s more a part of the team than anybody associated with the Phoenix Coyotes,” said Doan after scoring the only goal in a 1-0 Game 4 win over the Nashville Predators on Friday. “You’d be hard-pressed to say anything bad about that man, and if you do, I would certainly take issue with it.”
Doan’s eyes flash anger as he says this, and you can forgive him. Wilson has been his sounding board, his therapist of sorts for 18 years of wretched luck. The two of them have seen absolutely everything slip away.
Their franchise moved from Winnipeg in the mid-1990s, with fans crying in the stands on the Jets’ last night. They lost the greatest ever player, Wayne Gretzky, when he resigned as Coyotes coach in 2009. And in between, they lost their shot at the Cup every single season, usually long before the playoffs even began. Night after night, it was Doan and Wilson, the last two guys in an empty dressing room, talking and venting and rallying each other. Night after night, for nearly a generation, it was Stan and Shane and countless broken sticks and broken dreams. Think of all the laundry folded, the bags lugged, the overnight flights boarded, the skates sharpened in vain.
Teammates goof on “Doaner” for his close relationship with Wilson, but the one thing Doan can count on in hockey is Wilson. He says that in nearly two decades, Wilson has only missed three games in more than 1,500. That was when his father passed away. Doan loves his wife and kids fiercely, but there’s no one on earth he’s spent more time with than Wilson.
“He’s right up there,” Doan said, and his eyes glimmer.
Even this season, in which the team won a playoff series for the first time since before Doan got that No. 21 jersey as a rookie, ugly clouds have swirled. How tenuous is life as a Coyote? There’s a reporter here who covers the team for a Quebec City paper. His name is Kevin Dube, and he said he writes about the Coyotes just in case the team picks up and skips Arizona for Quebec. He was in Phoenix and Chicago for the first round, and he was here Friday night, in the dressing room, observing and documenting what could be the last days of the Coyotes. It’s like an elderly person being trailed by a funeral director.
Friday night, with Wilson frantically readying for another long flight, Dube stood by as Doan spoke about the most important winning goal of his career. And he had to be so careful because so much has been taken away. This franchise is such an underdog that the term “underdog” doesn’t even fit. The Coyotes are stray underdogs. So when asked how it feels to be one win away from a shot at the Cup final, Doan all but twitched. He averted his eyes and said, “We need one more win. That’s all we talk about.”
But ask about the possibility that Wilson could stand behind the bench in the Western Conference final? Well, now that gets a big grin. “It would mean so much to him,” Doan said, almost laughing at the thought.
And Wilson, when asked Friday night to comment, was equally business-like. “I’m pretty busy,” he said politely. Asked what it would mean to Doan if the team got to the next series, he smiled. “Pretty much everything,” he said. “I’d be so happy for him.”
It’s funny, because Friday night’s only goal was scored when Doan barreled into the corner, brought the puck out into the slot, and shot it home. That’s what Doan is known for – mucking around along the boards and using those fire-hydrant legs to pry the puck free. He’s done it repeatedly in his career, over and over and over. And Wilson has done his job, over and over and over. Isn’t this the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing repeatedly with the same fruitless outcome? Maybe the Predators will come back and win. Maybe this is all another cruel Coyotes joke. Maybe Wilson and Doan are insane.
But they are insane together.
After Friday’s game, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett spoke about the crucial voices on his team. “We’ve got leadership in the dressing room that keeps guys on the straight and narrow,” he said. That could be interpreted as an indirect jab at the Predators, who have had two stars benched for breaking team rules. But Tippett is more likely referring to Doan, as steady a leader as there is in sports. And it could also be a tip of the hat to Wilson, who can be heard on the bench during every game, yelling to the team from his usual spot. Wilson even had a quote written on the dry-erase board before the opening faceoff. It was a motivational quote, and Doan would sooner take a puck to the face than reveal it, but suffice it to say Wilson is a part of the leadership in this wayward franchise. Those who smirk at that idea will have a big-shouldered man from the prairies to answer to.
“He is as competitive as anybody on the bench,” Doan said. “I love that.”
Loyalty only goes so far in sports. Whether it’s Ray Bourque or Kevin Garnett or Roger Clemens, the sweetest spoils often go to those willing to cut ties and move to greener pastures. But these are two guys that didn’t move on. Here we have guys that stayed. And although they’ll never imagine a day beyond tomorrow in this brutal playoff slog, it’s hard not to imagine a day when Shane and Stan will finally have their happy hockey ending. For that to happen, they’ll need Mike Smith and Ray Whitney and Dave Tippett and a whole room full of guys.
But if it happens – if the Coyotes actually win the Stanley Cup – there will be a remarkable story that only best friends can tell.
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